Working big: A visit to Phil O'Malley's gargantuan studio


Judging just by the number of paintings and paintbrushes in his behemoth, 6,600 square foot studio in the Enterprise Center (55 S. State St.), Phil O'Malley has a lot going on. 

Then again, would you really expect O’Malley to have smaller digs? His 40 foot high by 20 foot wide painting for Clowes Hall's front lobby was unveiled Aug. 17. And he's been working on a solo show at the Herron School of Art and Design’s Marsh Gallery, opening Aug. 29.

Before we step into O'Malley's workspace, let’s spend some time talking about the massive painting, “Finding Your Way From Wander to Wonder,” that O’Malley, with a little help from his friends and Clowes staff, installed in on the south wall of the front lobby. Its size is impressive, as well as some of the other statistics associated with it. The painting required 12 gallons of paint and 20 gallons of acrylic primer. It took 240 hours to paint the thing. All of the drawing, spraying, squirting, mopping and brushing took place on the Clowes Hall stage between shows.

Another 360 man-hours were spent constructing the frame and installing the painting, which weighs 200 pounds. Twelve people were required to transfer the painting into position on a custom frame before being installed in the Clowes lobby.

The payoff was worth it. "From Wander to Wonder" is a luminescent painting that, in its abstraction, nevertheless bears some resemblance to an underwater seascape.

The companion exhibition, "Moment of Conception?" at Herron's Marsh Gallery will include an exhibit on the making of this massive painting, with documentation including timeline sketches, drawings, and three videos. The exhibit will also feature other work from the “Deep Down" series of which the massive canvas at Clowes is a part. "Moment of Conception?" was co-curated by O'Malley and C. J. Martin, with help from artists Naylor Musko and Steve Smolinski.

Back to the Enterprise Center. As O’Malley guides me past tables on wheels that are loaded with paints and brushes and all manner of in-progress projects — “I know it looks like organized chaos, or kind of organized, but I kind of know where everything is,” he says — he talks about the unique challenges of using the four-story-high interior of Clowes as a showcase for his art.

“There’s only 20 feet from the wall where the painting is to the back wall," he says. "And there are also four different levels for vistas. So for someone to be able to see it, they have to see it from the sides and from the balconies ... And rather than [having the piece] just sit in the space, hanging there, being decorative, it had to really function in the space. And I think what was so exciting about that challenge was to analyze all of those things and, plus, bring a theme to it that everybody could relate to. Everybody knows of sometime in their life when they had to find the strength or the courage to do something, whether it’s monumental or just to make a change in their diet.”

Hence, the painting's title, “Finding your Way from Wander to Wonder." According to O'Malley, getting from one to the other requires getting through a lot of "muck."

We then make our way into the half of his studio that was once the Midwest distribution center for Half Price Books. He shows me a sculpture laying flat on a table that will soon hang in the Herron’s Marsh Gallery, “The 5 Year Plan; 56.9,” which the 56-year-old O’Malley calls a self-portrait. The main elements in the sculpture are plastic Venetian blinds, 140 of them, pulled from the trash.

“We took the tops off ... hung them up on tubes, and I made a spray booth and sprayed all of them with color," he says. "The piece will undulate in both directions," with blinds hanging about 12 feet off the ground.

The piece is a timeline, O'Malley says: The colors of the rods correspond to stages of his life, some happier than others, but none finding him more more creatively engaged than in the present moment.


"Finding Your Way From Wander to Wonder" can be seen free of charge at Clowes Hall from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday to Friday.

"The Moment of Conception?," featuring the work of Herron alumnus and Clowes artist-in-residence Phil O'Malley, runs Aug. 29 to Sept. 19 in the Marsh Gallery of Herron School of Art and Design.

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Arts Editor

Dan Grossman is NUVO's arts editor.